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Navigating COVID closures on the crisis-stricken Venezuelan-Colombian border

During a late-November visit to La Parada, Colombia, the Western Standard toured several trochas with a Colombian police escort.

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Story and photos by JOSH FRIEDMAN

Special to the Western Standard

VENEZUELA-COLOMBIAN BORDER – Venezuelans are navigating poverty, paramilitaries and flooding along the “closed” border here.

They are called “las trochas.” Las trochas can be translated as the trails. More contextually, they are illicit trails — illegal border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia.

Amid a months-long closure of formal Venezuelan-Colombian border crossings due to coronavirus measures, Venezuelans rely on trails and paths they forge to pass, or wade, through the border-straddling Tachira River and to cross into Colombia. The demand for food, medicine and basic supplies in Colombia is too high to stop crisis-stricken Venezuelans from crossing back and forth, locals say.  

During a visit late November to La Parada, Colombia, the Western Standard toured several trochas with a Colombian police escort. Hundreds of Venezuelans could be seen crossing the border, using the trochas to go back and forth.

La Playita Crossing

Within the trochas, one can find river-crossings, thick shrubbery, trash and livestock. In addition to many Venezuelans walking back and forth — some carrying backpacks or hauling large items — one can also spot Colombian police, Venezuelan guardsmen and armed men whose affiliation is not always clear. 

In the “Trocha La Marranera,” or the Pigsty Trocha, a Venezuelan man who lives in the border region said he had just crossed into Colombia to buy rice, chicken and wheat and corn flour. It is common for Venezuelans to cross into Colombia to shop for groceries. In prior interviews, Venezuelans crossing the border said food is available in Venezuela, but only certain items like rice, beans and yuca, are affordable for the masses. 

On the Colombian side, National Police officers stand and watch as Venezuelans cross in and out of Colombia along the illicit routes. Sometimes the Venezuelans and Colombian police greet or say hello to one another. 

An officer said Colombian police do not know who’s crossing the border because there exists no treaty between Colombia and Venezuela on identifying the people using the trochas. Colombian authorities do not have access to background checks on individuals crossing back and forth and do not know if they have ever served time in prison, the officer said.

To Colombia’s National Police, the Venezuelans entering Colombia illegally to buy food and household items are of lesser concern than the paramilitary groups operating along the border and vying for territory. While walking along the Tachira River in no man’s land between Colombia and Venezuela, the Western Standard spotted a small group of men carrying guns and lurking behind dense greenery across the water on the Venezuelan side. It was not clear whether they were Venezuelan forces or paramilitaries.

Tren de Aragua, a Venezuelan criminal group, has been trying to take control of a sprawling trocha called “Los Mangos,” or The Mangos, a National Police officer said while escorting the Western Standard through the area. Tren de Aragua is said to have penetrated the border and spread its operations into Colombia. Police are gathering intelligence and trying to arrest members of the criminal group, the officer said.

Los Mangos

At one point, while walking through Los Mangos Trocha, an officer warned it was not safe to walk farther. Paramilitary members had previously targeted journalists in the area and had stolen or attempted to steal their cameras, the officer said. 

On the other side of the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, at the entrance to the “Trocha La Playita”, or The Beach Trocha, there was talk of another type of paramilitary operating in the area. Members of a colectivo were said to be demanding payment from anyone seeking to cross the border. The colectivo was reportedly charging each person about the equivalent of a quarter of a United States dollar in order to cross.

Colectivos are groups of armed men who are loyal to Venezuela’s socialist government. Described by some observers as a gang and by others as paramilitary forces, colectivos are renowned inside of Venezuela. They are known for providing community services, but also for drug trafficking, robbery, murder and targeting political opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Their impact can be felt across the Tachira River in La Parada, a Colombian border community largely inhabited by impoverished Venezuelans. 

Jenifer Barrios, a Venezuelan woman living in La Parada, said her child is growing up without a father due to how his involvement in a colectivo ended. 

“He was part of the colectivo,” Barrios said. “He was doing bad business with some bad guys, so he got killed.”

Barrios left Venezuela due to its poor economy and lack of food, she said. Her life does not appear to have improved dramatically since settling on the Colombian side of the border. 

In La Parada, Barrios is obliged to work as a prostitute because she needs to feed her baby, she said. Barrios must accept whatever the man wants to give her. If a man comes with 20,000 Colombian pesos — less than $6 — she must accept it. 

“This is not the right place to have a daughter,” Barrios said. “There are always fights between different gangsters or groups.”

Yet, Venezuelans keep coming to Colombia — most for short visits, others for the long-term or in transit to a new country. At the onset of the coronavirus lockdown in the region, numerous Venezuelans returned to their home country. But in recent months, many have departed Venezuela again.

Closed border crossing

In late 2019, when formal crossings were still open, United Nations refugee agency officials stationed at the border estimated 40,000 Venezuelans were entering Colombia daily, with most of them turning around and heading back into Venezuela later the same day. Some Venezuelans choose to live in Colombia, where they have quasi-legal status. Others immigrate to different countries in the region, some even doing so by foot. Known locally as “the walkers,” these Venezuelan migrants say they cannot afford bus tickets and have no choice but to walk to other cities in Colombia or even to neighboring South American countries.

For the Venezuelans crossing back and forth, the elements can also prove challenging. The weather is hot and, at times, wet. When heavy rain occurs, there can be flooding, and crossing the Tachira River can become unmanageable. 

On November 18, hundreds or more Venezuelans stormed the Simon Bolivar bridge after heavy rain flooded the Tachira River and the trochas. Many Venezuelans had crossed into Colombia to make purchases and needed to return to Venezuela. They stormed the entrance to the border bridge, burst through fencing and overwhelmed the handful of Colombian police officers who were present. With some carrying large items or babies, the border hoppers rushed back into Venezuela. 

Storming the bridge

Colombian police later said the Venezuelans were permitted to cross the bridge on humanitarian grounds. Despite the presence of a river, armed criminals, paramilitaries and Colombian and Venezuelan forces, it seems little can be done to stop the crisis in Venezuela from propelling people across the border and back, even in the era of Covid.

Friedman is a freelance reporter who covered the war in Azerbaijan and Armenia for the Western Standard

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Kenney ‘concerned’ of reports Biden to cancel KXL

And if Biden does cancel the project, Kenney said he will sue.

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney – whose UCP government invested $1.5 billion of taxpayers money in the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project – says he’s “concerned” about reports from south of the border that President-elect Joe Biden is set to cancel the project.

And if Biden does cancel the project, Kenney said he will sue.

Reports from Washington Sunday night said Biden will cancel the project on the first day he is in office, January 20.

Biden was vice-president and stood by President Barack Obama on November 6, 2015, in the Oval Office when he cancelled Keystone. President Donald Trump overturned that decision and granted a permit.

Kenney’s statement was critical of the pending decision, but made no mention of the $1.5 billion ownership stake his government took in the project. Biden publicly committed to killing the pipeline project along before the decision to purchase a portion of the pipeline was made by the UCP government.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden may repeal the Presidential permit for the Keystone XL border crossing next week,” Kenney said in a statement.

“Doing so would kill jobs on both sides of the border, weaken the critically important Canada-U.S. relationship, and undermine U.S. national security by making the United States more dependent on OPEC oil imports in the future.

“In 2019, the United States imported 9.14 million barrels per day of petroleum, 3.7 million of which came from Canada. The rest comes from countries like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, none of whom share the commitment of Canada and the United States to environmental stewardship, combatting climate change, or North American energy security.

“As President-elect Biden’s green jobs plan acknowledges, Americans will consume millions of barrels of oil per day for years to come. It is in perfect keeping with his plan that the United States energy needs should be met by a country that takes the challenges of climate change seriously.

“The Keystone XL pipeline also represents tens of thousands of good-paying jobs that the American economy needs right now. That is why major American labour unions who supported President-elect Biden’s campaign strongly back the project, as do First Nations who have signed partnership agreements, and all state governments along the pipeline route.

“Prime Minister Trudeau raised the issue with President-elect Biden on their November 9, 2020, telephone meeting, agreeing ‘to engage on key issues, including … energy cooperation such as Keystone XL.’

“We renew our call on the incoming administration to show respect for Canada as the United States’ most important trading partner and strategic ally by keeping that commitment to engage, and to allow Canada to make the case for strengthening cooperation on energy, the environment, and the economy through this project.

“Should the incoming U.S. Administration abrogate the Keystone-XL permit, Alberta will work with TC Energy to use all legal avenues available to protect its interest in the project.”

During the Democratic primaries and campaign, Biden vowed to kill the pipeline, large portions of which have already been built in Alberta. He made the vow before Alberta invested it’s $1.5 billion.

The Democratic candidate and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, have also said in the past they would put an end to fracking, a promise they did not repeat during the campaign.

The Keystone pipeline runs from Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Texas.

The new pipeline would run from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska.

Dave Naylor is the News Editor of the Western Standard
dnaylor@westernstandardonline.com
TWITTER: Twitter.com/nobby7694

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BREAKING: Biden to cancel KXL pipeline first day in office, report says

It will be a huge blow to Alberta, which has invested heavily in the pipeline.

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US President-elect Joe Biden is sent to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline expansion project on the first day he enters the Oval Office, says a report.

Biden was vice-president and stood by President Barack Obama on November 6, 2015, in the Oval Office when he cancelled Keystone. President Donald Trump overturned that decision and granted a permit.

It will be a huge blow to Alberta, which has invested heavily in the pipeline.

Alberta has already invested more than $1.5 billion with operator TC Energy. Another $6 billion in loan guarantees has also been made available to the company.

CBC News on Sunday reported a briefing note from the Biden transition team was widely circulated over the weekend after being shared by the incoming president’s team with U.S. stakeholders. 

The words “Rescind Keystone XL pipeline permit” appear on a list of executive actions supposedly scheduled for Day 1 of Biden’s presidency, said CBC.

Biden has said he will sign a raft of executive orders on his first day in office, on January 20, including revoking a Donald Trump-imposed limit on travel from Muslim countries.

During the campaign, Biden vowed to kill the pipeline, large portions of which have already been built in Alberta.

The Democratic candidate and the vice president-elect, Kamala Harris, have also said in the past they would put an end to fracking, a promise they did not repeat during the campaign.

The Alberta and federal governments have promised to lobby Biden hard on the benefits to letting pipeline construction from the Alberta border to Nebraska proceed.

In November, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was optimistic the pipeline would get the go-ahead.

In March 2020, Kenney ordered the Alberta government to buy a $1.5 billion stake in the project that appears to be in deep trouble.

“U.S. energy security is dependent on Alberta as the United States’ largest source of oil imports. Much of the American economy is fuelled by Alberta energy. We look forward to working with President-elect Biden’s transition team and future administration to ensure that this vital economic partnership continues,” said Kenney.

“Canada and the United States must work closely together to protect lives and livelihoods through the COVID crisis, and to return our economies to growth. Alberta looks forward to doing our part in advancing that growth agenda, working with the next U.S. administration and Congress.”

The Keystone pipeline runs from Alberta to refineries in Illinois and Texas.

The new pipeline would run from Hardisty, Alberta to Steele City, Nebraska.

Dave Naylor is the News Editor of the Western Standard
dnaylor@westernstandardonline.com
TWITTER: Twitter.com/nobby7694

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North Vancouver councillor says pickup truck is ‘glorification of violence’, ‘petro masculinity’

Mathew Bond, a councillor for North Vancouver made the comment on Twitter Saturday after coming across a parked pickup in Vancouver.

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A North Vancouver councillor says a pickup truck is a “glorification of violence” and is a symbol “domination”.

Mathew Bond, a councillor for North Vancouver made the comment on Twitter Saturday after coming across a parked pickup truck in Vancouver.

“The glorification of violence and domination,” Bond tweeted with disgust, along with a picture of the truck.

Bond hash-tagged his posted “#unnecessarytrucks #petromasculinity“.

Bond tweet

The Dodge Ram with a medium suspension lift did not have a front licence plate, which means it could be from Alberta.

There is also a skull attached below the front bumper adorned with the words “global warmer.”

The post caused an eruption of anger by pickup truck supporters against Bond.

“I’m unclear on the point of this post other than to perpetuate/aggravate an “us and them” position. “Petromasculinity” really? “Unnecessary truck”? With so much crap actually going on do we really need to sit in judgment of a parked truck downtown???” asked Sonya Bonenfant.

Rand Ridley mocked the driving capabilities of Vancouverites with his response: “At least when you get that one inch of snow that shuts Vancouver down this guy won’t be stuck blocking traffic!”

But the councillor was less than impressed with his critics.

“A lot of the replies to this tweet (which Twitter has graciously ran through the quality filter) are reinforcing the point I made,” he tweeted on Sunday.

“Wow, never expected to have so many people on this website thinking about my penis (especially dudes). Weird, but thanks?”

Dave Naylor is the News Editor of the Western Standard
dnaylor@westernstandardonline.com
TWITTER: Twitter.com/nobby7694

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